Monday, 28 September 2009

Storytelling with impact: Katy Gordon ppc in the Lib Dems' Real Women debate

As usual, I spent a fair bit of time in the hall at the Liberal Democrat conference. I enjoy policy debates. Also, I was looking out for examples of people using stories to support their arguments and policy ideas.

It was lean pickings I’m afraid, but one speech hit me right between the eyes: the speech by Katy Gordon, ppc for Glasgow North, in the debate on the Real Women policy paper. She was defending the paper’s most controversial proposal, to ban the use of digital retouching technology in advertisements aimed at under 16s and to work with industry professionals to ensure that legislation was appropriately worded to reflect these aims.

Take a look at what Katy Gordon said, almost at the beginning of her speech.

"I wanted to know if the proposals in this paper would be seen as more of the nanny state: those do-gooding Liberals getting worked up over trivia. So I took it along to a group of ordinary women in my constituency of Glasgow North, at the North West Women’s Centre in Maryhill. The group ranged from girls in their twenties to retired grandmothers, many of whom have faced real barriers in bringing up families. I asked them what they thought of media images of female beauty and whether there was any role for government on this issue.

"What struck me was that all of them independently came up with the proposals in this paper! From Gail, a retail manager, who asked whether we could put something in magazine pictures to say they are airbrushed to Denise, a caretaker, who suggested showing before and after photos so everyone could see the difference.

"What really struck home though was Trisha, who told me about her daughter, Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann is 20 and all the women agreed she is pretty but she is tall and she thinks of herself as fat. She is always comparing herself to the images in magazines and gets terribly depressed. In fact, Trisha is worried that she is secretly taking laxatives, in a desperate attempt to lose weight.

"Now the women were very clear that they had a responsibility to give their daughters the confidence to reject these unrealistic portrayals of female beauty. As Stacey said, you need to start young to get them to be confident in their bodies. Trisha tells Mary-Ann regularly that ‘she is a real woman and that beauty comes from the inside’, but however good a parent you are, you are up against the might of the media and the beauty industry."

Katy Gordon used stories, with real characters, a beginning and an end, to help build her case. Taken together, the stories pass the Anecdote test for what makes a story have impact. They are clear, believable and have strike an emotional chord. There’s an element of surprise: the “ordinary” women were, in effect, already calling for the same proposals as the party.
Katy Gordon told what Annette Simmons(1) calls an “I-know-what-you-are thinking story”:

"A trust-building surprise for you to share the audience’s secret suspicions that first validates and then dispels these objections without sounding defensive."

She acknowledged the objections held silently by many in the audience: that the policy paper that this was more “nanny state”, “do gooding” liberal “trivia” and then met them head on. “Nanny state”? “Do gooders”? “Trivia”? Yep, you’ve got it. Katy Gordon took the other side’s frames and broke them open with powerful stories.

Her stories were followed by some explanation and statistics, reinforcing the reasons for the proposed reforms.

At the very end of the speech came the “happy ending” that the proposals could bring.

"As Nick Clegg is stressing this week, if we want things to be different, we should choose something different.

"We need to think about Mary-Ann crying herself to sleep because she can’t attain the ideal body image, of Trisha worrying herself sick over how to cope."

And in very specific ways, Katy Gordon’s stories reinforced the values that her audience wanted to hear – that the Liberal Democrats are “different” - more “radical”, readier to take risks.

Why can’t more Liberal Democrat politicians use stories this effectively?

(1) Annette Simmonds, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (Amacom, 2007)

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Tackling climate change and building a green economy with clean energy. How would the Lib Dems do it?

Liberal Democrats talk about tackling climate change, investing in clean renewable energy and investing in green economic growth and green infrastructure. But how would we do it?

The scientific consensus is clear - the world must keep the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, or we will face an apocalyptic situation where climate change is out of our control.

The science is becoming more pessimistic. Last year, for instance, climate scientists from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research found that cumulative CO2 emissions, along with carbon cycle feedbacks and the omission of emissions from international transport, mean that action to reduce emissions is needed much more urgently that previously thought. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to start falling by 2015. Their analysis also suggests that the UK needs to aim at the upper end of the IPCC’s recommendations, for industrialised countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions between 25 and 40 per cent from a 1990 baseline; in part to encourage other countries to aim for a stronger deal at Copenhagen. [click here].

The independent Committee on Climate Change favours strong domestic action, with little or no dependence on offsets purchased from abroad to achieve its suggested emissions reduction targets.

So the Liberal Democrats are correct to commit to cutting UK emissions by 40 percent by 2020; and to supporting an international agreement to do the same.(1)

We have also adopted targets for 40% clean electricity -- wind, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, wave and tidal, solar power -- by 2020; and for making a major improvement in our energy efficiency -- the most cost-effective way of cutting carbon emissions. This is the key to reducing our carbon emissions. Research by the Carbon Trust and Imperial College proves it.

Liberal Democrats want to take carbon out of the electricity we use, the heat we need, the vehicles we use to get around by 2050. We want to create a new, green economy.

Let’s be clear. This is a transformation the like of which has never seen before. It will need the fastest acceleration of technological development and innovation in our history. And 40% clean electricity is eight times the UK’s current level.

The transformation to a zero carbon Britain will need investment in, for example: renewables generation; robust energy efficiency solutions; offshore wind power grids; electricity transmission and gas distribution grid reinforcement and interconnectors; and smart meters.

Last year, the Renewables Advisory Board estimated that to reach the government’s existing energy targets the private sector will need to invest £100bn by 2020.

In July 2009, new work by Ernst and Young, covering investment needs for all the government’s energy policy goals, put the figure at £90 billion by 2015 (though that includes new nuclear generation).

But market failures mean that private sector involvement alone will not generate enough investment to fully commercialise some new green technologies quickly enough.

In some cases, the lead times are too long. Some supply chains are too weak – in onshore wind, for example, we have to compete in a global supply chain with Spain, Denmark. And in offshore wind there are very few turbine manufacturers.

The Liberal Democrats’ general election manifesto should set out a green industrial strategy, to make sure that the technologies where this country has an advantage can come to market. This includes:
  • providing capital grants for clean energy sources;
  • creating a Green Infrastructure Bank to act as the catalyst for private sector investment; with public finance acting in partnership to carry forward low carbon infrastructure investment; and
  • using green bonds to raise new finance for green infrastructure and energy efficiency solutions; boosting confidence in low carbon markets without making the public debt worse.

Liberal Democrats talk about “using guaranteed prices to drive investment in renewable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar.” But so do Labour (now) and the Conservatives. We need to be committed to guaranteed prices that do the job – by being structured simply enough and set sufficiently high to promote investment in as many viable clean energy solutions as possible.

(1) Note that earlier this year, new research from the Tyndall Centre supported a 42 per cent UK emissions reduction target by 2020 (without using carbon offsets purchased from abroad.

[This is an edited version of the speech I would have given in the energy and climate change debate at the Liberal Democrat conference, had I been called.]

Zero Carbon Britain - Liberal Democrats should tell it straight

But we need to be much clearer than the Fresh Start pre-manifesto about how we would achieve it.

With every general election, we set out how much our policies would cost and how we would pay for them.

We should be just as open an honest about how we will cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Our next general election manifesto should set out an alternative carbon budget showing, for every major government department and every major policy area, how we will put the UK on a zero carbon path.

We need to show, with policies and figures, how every major department- for instance, energy and climate change, transport, communities, Treasury – will play its part.

[This a slightly edited version of my intervention in the debate on A Fresh Start for Britain at the Liberal Democrat conference, 22 September 2009]

Monday, 7 September 2009

New Zealand may ditch fair voting system

I came to the UK sixteen years ago, almost to the day. I remember how many people in the Liberal Democrats and a few beyond, were very interested to know about how and why New Zealanders had changed our voting system. People asked (and still ask) if there were any lessons from NZ that could be applied here. The answer is yes. But Kiwis may be about to make another change– to a voting system that is much less “proportional” and looks more like first past the post.

In a referendum held on the same day as the 1993 general election, Kiwis voted by 54 to 46 percent to scrap “first-past-the-post” and bring in the mixed member proportional (MMP) system. [For further details, click here and here]. General elections were held using MMP in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008. After last year’s vote, a coalition led by the (centre right) National Party took over. (The line-up is National/ACT/Maori Party/UnitedFuture NZ)

National promised to hold a binding referendum on MMP, to be held no later than 2011, when the next general election is due. This would:
“. . . give people a choice between retaining MMP without any further consideration, or having a further vote on MMP alongside another electoral system or systems.”

That seems fair enough. When the change to MMP was made, it was expected that Kiwis would one day have a chance to review their decision. Five elections on, they should be able to look afresh at the voting system.

But National’s election policy left open a lot of questions, such as the timing of the vote, how many referendums will be held and what the options will be.

It now looks as if the government plans a two-stage process. The first referendum, which would be held at the time of the 2011 election, would ask voters whether they thought there should be a change of electoral system. If change was favoured, a second referendum would be held before 2014 on the options. We still don’t know what the options will be: the cabinet is still working this one out.

Prime Minister John Key has said today that:

“New Zealanders have become accustomed to a proportional system, so I personally have been of the view it would be unlikely to go back to first past the post.”

He went on:

"Whether they might consider an alternative proportional system is something that's in their hands. I think it's a bit early to tell at this point."

Smelled a rat yet? Key personally favours the supplementary member (SM) system, in which the vast majority of MPs would be chosen from single member constituencies with a smaller number from party lists, to provide a limited “top up” for parties who had not won constituencies in proportion to their overall support.

SM is a “proportional” voting system only in the sense that a whitebait is a fish. It would advantage the two major parties over the smaller ones (apart from, possibly, the Maori Party). But it would almost certainly help National more than Labour. [There’s more on this point, here.]

And isn’t it funny how the anti-MMP campaigners, former Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe (who led the pro-first-past-the-post campaign in 1993) and commentator Graeme Hunt are backing the supplementary member system?

UK electoral reformers should keep watch what the Kiwis do. Just as they used the NZ precedent as a model that can be followed, their opponents can do the same if Kiwis eventually get rid of MMP.

With an eye to any future UK vote on electoral reform, they should also watch the process and timetable used for the MMP referendum. For instance, the Greens’ co-leader Metiria Turei has called for an independent review, with full public consultation on how the system is working, before any referendum is held. These things are all about party advantage -- just like the debate on voting systems itself.